I tend to believe Eric Holder, the embattled U.S. Attorney General, when he says he played no direct role in the Justice Department’s secret probe of the Associated Press’ telephone records.
Still, the clandestine infringement of one of the nation’s largest news gathering organizations is a serious violation of civil liberties that Holder must own, address and fix.
The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The AP in what AP’s top editor correctly called a massive and unprecedented intrusion and “obviously distressing.”
Holder said he had removed himself from the investigation because of congressional testimony he had given regarding his dealings with the news media and said he didn’t want the appearance of a conflict.
”I do not know with regard to this particular case why that was or was not done….I am not familiar with the reasons why the email was disrupted in the way that it was,” Holder told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “I have faith in the people who would actually be responsible for this case they were aware of the rules and they followed them. But I don’t have a factual basis to answer the question because I was recused.”
The probe reportedly related to a May 7, 2012, AP article detailing how the CIA had derailed a planned al-Qaeda-linked group. The story was published a day before President Obama planned to publicly announce the attack had been foiled, the AP said.
But the editors at AP said the Justice Department still hasn’t told them what the investigation is all about and leaves journalists to speculate who is at the center of the probe.
Are seizing telephone records from journalists now going to be an ongoing policy of the Obama administration?
“I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years. Our First Amendment lawyers inside the AP … none of us have ever seen anything like this,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll during an appearance on MSNBC.
As a journalist myself, this covert investigation is alarming. Journalists in Washington, D.C. are more skeptical of the government now more than ever and they wonder if their phone calls to confidential sources are safe and protected.
One journalist from CNN asked Holder during a press conference this week if the seized telephone records in an indication that the Obama administration plans an all-out assault on the media.
It may initially sound like a far-fetched question, but in hindsight it’s a valid query considering the cloak-and-dagger movements by the Justice Department.
And, journalists are asking, if the Justice Department can go after AP, what’s to prevent the Justice Department from snatching telephone records from other news organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post?
The government’s seizures will also make it increasingly difficult for journalists to do their jobs effectively because confidential sources won’t feel comfortable talking to reporters if they think their phone records will end up in a Justice Department file.
Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that he believes President Barack Obama owes the American public explanations for the seizure of Associated Press phone records.
“I don’t think anyone truly believes that the president has given us a sufficient answer for America, much less the press,” Rangel said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I think this is just the beginning and the whole idea of comparing this with Nixon, I really think is just, it doesn’t make much sense. But the president has to come forward and share why he did not alert the press they were going to do this. He has to tell the Americans, including me: What was this national security question?”
The Obama administration has always shouted from the rafters that it embraces, supports, and will fight to the death for civil liberties in America, and ironically, it’s now engaged in one of the most undercover breaches of civil liberties on record.
Journalists are naturally wary and uneasy of a government that now has access to dozens of telephone records of journalists who thought their associations with their confidential sources were private.
“I am deeply troubled by the notion that our government would secretly pursue such a broad array of media phone records over such a long period of time,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
Holder must offer a more detailed and solid account for why the Justice Department had to swipe the AP’s telephone records. He has a lot of explaining to do.